Fix What’s Broken But Don’t Lose Oakland’s Spirit

We asked Oaklanders to speak to the next mayor-elect. Here’s what they said.


By the time that many people read this story, Oakland will have a newly elected mayor. If the polls ring true, she will likely be the familiar Jean Quan, reelected for a second term, or one of the mayor’s two front-running challengers, Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan or Libby Schaff.

So now what?

The city’s new leader immediately shoulders tremendous responsibility to make good on campaign promises, and do well by the city. But what does it mean to serve Oakland well as mayor? What do people want from the crown roost at City Hall?

Quality of life matters to voters and nonvoters alike. And people tend to hold mayors accountable for such quality-of-life issues, even those matters over which a mayor has little control, such as public schools.

Public surveys taken over the past couple of years have consistently rated public safety, affordable housing, and jobs as Oakland’s major “quality of life” concerns. This year, people are feeling a little better about safety and a little better about the economy, with recent improvements in both areas.

Even so, in the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 “Pulse of Oakland” poll released in October, one of the most recent public surveys of the election season, likely voters rated crime prevention, improving schools and creating good paying jobs as their top priorities for the city. The poll also showed deep disillusionment with the mayor and city council.

Many residents wonder: Will Oakland’s good news continue, and will any improvements benefit all residents or leave some behind?

So, likely Madame Mayor, what do Oakland’s residents hold you accountable for? We asked.

Inder Singh is the prototypical Oakland newcomer; a computer engineer who moved about six months ago from San Francisco to the city’s Uptown district because he could no longer afford the cost of housing in the city by the bay. Sipping coffee at a Telegraph Avenue cafe, Singh observed that if a fully employed computer engineer can’t afford to live in San Francisco, then the cost of living there is completely out of control.

Singh, who describes himself as not very political, enjoys Oakland but worries that it will end up just like San Francisco, with lower-income people pushed out by skyrocketing housing costs.

“Oakland is getting more where certain areas are nice and certain areas aren’t,” Singh said. “ I think the whole community should benefit from economic investments. Economic inequality is more striking now that growth is happening; it’s unfair that it’s not reaching everyone.”

Like many Oakland residents, Susan Zaninovich, a 15-year resident of Oakland who lives in West Oakland’s Ghosttown neighborhood, and Aaron Schirmer, a five-year resident who works at a Jack London Square kayak store, didn’t quite agree on one major issue. Zaninovich started to say that Oakland needs more police, but Schirmer shook his head.

“There shouldn’t be money dumped into the police force,” Schirmer said. “We already have a strong police force.”

Discussion ensued between the friends. “Oakland needs cops walking the streets,” Zaninovich said. “Cops come after something happens, but we never see them walking the streets.” Schirmer agreed about the need for more officers out of their cars, walking the streets. “But not hassling people,” Zaninovich concluded.

Affordable housing was also on their minds, and on that topic they agreed. Schirmer said that new developments should be required to offer some affordable units in the mix. “It’s great to see the neighborhood growing, which I’m not opposed to ... but you need more affordable housing.”

Over by Lake Merritt, retired teacher and 12-year Oakland resident Judith Lucero and her walking buddy, Joyce, a 20-year resident who retired from the city of San Francisco, were unequivocal about the needs for more police officers and fire fighters. “Police numbers are down so far they don’t even come unless it’s a major crime,” Lucero griped.

Both women live in the Lake Merritt area, where Joyce said she would like to see better police response times to burglaries and robberies. The women also want City Hall and the Oakland engine of government services to be easier to reach by phone, letter, or email.

And as with many fellow Oaklanders, housing struck a chord with Joyce. “The way it’s going around Lake Merritt, I won’t be able to live here,” she said.

Loving Oakland was a distinct theme in these conversations. In fact, many residents were protectively rooting for their city and hoping that the new mayor would not mess things up.

At the Fruitvale Public Market, Luis Abundis has run Nieves Cinco de Mayo for years; it’s a popular go-to spot for traditional homemade Mexican ice cream and other frozen treats. Business has picked up in recent of years, Abundis said, taking a short break from serving a steady line of eager customers on a warm late afternoon. His message for the mayor was simple. “Don’t forget us.” And by us? The business, the neighborhood, the family, he explained, casting a hand over the bustling plaza. “I like Oakland,” he said. “I raised my kids here. I like the diversity of people.”

Outside, sitting on a plaza bench in the sun, Johanna Justiniano and her friend Jackie Lindeman were savoring treats from the ice cream shop, including its famous Mangonada, a sweet-spicy concoction of fresh mango, ice cream, shaved ice, and chili.

“I just want the mayor of Oakland to honor the spirit of the Oakland community,” said Justiniano, an 11-year resident who works for an educational nonprofit.

“We’re changing. More money is coming in, and new people. The tension of the old Oakland and the new is a real tension. The gentrification. The new money. How do you keep the spirit of Oakland what it is?”

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